‘Three Identical Strangers’ And The Real Science Of Nature Vs. Nurture

By Tom Avril
The Philadelphia Inquirer

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) What has more power on shaping the personality and behavior of an indvidual, his or her genes or environment? A new movie based on a set of triplets seperated at birth, explores that very question.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

When Robert Shafran started community college in upstate New York in 1980, he was puzzled that some of his fellow students seemed unusually friendly, acting as though they already knew him.

That mystery is retold in the opening moments of the movie “Three Identical Strangers,” and it gets more bizarre from there.

Spoiler alert: Shafran learned he was one of a set of triplets who were separated soon after birth and placed with adoptive families, part of a study in which researchers explored the age-old question of how human beings are shaped by nature and nurture.

“I wouldn’t believe the story if someone else were telling it,” he says in the documentary, which came out this summer.

The three were near-identical in appearance and seemed, at a glance, to share a number of behavioral traits. They had the same genes, after all. Yet in certain respects, their personalities were noticeably different. Should that be chalked up to the families who raised them, the filmmakers ask?

The film suggests that question remains somewhat unresolved, at least for these triplets and other participants in the study (which drew fire from ethicists, more on that later).

But on a population level, scientists know a great deal about the relative roles of genetics and the environment in shaping all sorts of characteristics, both physical traits such as height and weight, and behavioral attributes such as personality and mental health.

For starters: Identical twins (and triplets) are not 100 percent identical, even though they originate from the same egg and sperm. Each time our cells divide and the DNA is copied, there is a chance for small, usually inconsequential, mistakes.

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